Beautiful but troubled young Julie (Rosemary Dexter) searches for her missing boyfriend Luca (Horst Frank), a psychiatrist who has suddenly vanished for no apparent reason. She drives down south to the last place he was seen, near a small seaside town. Frank (Adolfo Celi), a shifty old former gangster newly returned from America, cops an eyeful of Julie in her slinky miniskirt and offers his help. He lets Julie stay at the home of an eccentric art dealer whose creepy servant boy spies on her while she sleeps in the nude. A trail of clues eventually leads Julie to a villa by the sea, a commune for eccentric arty types run by flamboyant Gerda (Alida Valli), yet another of Frank's sinister friends. Here Julie discovers her boyfriend was not such a great guy after all. In fact Luca was a drug-dealing rapist out to blackmail other residents over their deep dark secrets. Everyone had a reason to want him dead. Out of the blue Julie receives a phone-call from Luca, assuring her he is fine and well. Then Frank, still trying his hardest to get in Julie's pants, reveals it was only a recording. Someone at the villa murdered Luca and wants Julie dead too.
Opening with a quote from Argentinean magical realist author Jorge Luis Borges, whose writing often employed labyrinths as an allegorical device, might seem a tad pretentious for a lurid giallo horror-thriller. Yet Eye in the Labyrinth spins a twist-laden plot mind-bending enough to earn that right. Writer-director Mario Caiano remains among the most underrated Italian exploitation filmmakers. His films are polished, mainstream entertainment yet quirky and more ambitious than some of the work of his more celebrated contemporaries: e.g. Nightmare Castle (1965) his contribution to the Barbara Steele gothic horror wave, anti-racist kung fu spaghetti western The Fighting Fists of Shanghai Joe (1972) and poliziotteschi thriller Weapons of Death (1977). With Eye in the Labyrinth Caiano proves one can make a thriller both ambiguous and tightly plotted. The film's Chinese puzzle box story-structure starts with a compelling premise (a woman searches for her missing boyfriend) then gradually spirals into an altogether different, even more unsettling psychological mystery.
It would be agreeable enough just to watch lovely Rosemary Dexter traipse around the picturesque southern Italian countryside. Yet Caiano deftly employs distorting lenses and subtly surrealistic sets to transform a relatively realistic milieu into a nightmare scenario worthy of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1919). Both direction and plot prove suitably labyrinthine, wrapped up in a super-cool lounge score by Roberto Nicolosi. Caiano injects a dose of Alice in Wonderland-like surrealism in scenes where Julia meets familiar faces again and again only for them to insist they have never met before. Or else deny events she sees with her own eyes. Despite featuring the usual cod-Freudian ideas about female sexual neuroses that are almost laughable in their blatant misogyny, this remains a superior giallo that mines a neat line in claustrophobic paranoia. Additionally if Caiano's hilarious depiction of the freaky deaky commune – whose residents include a young Sybil Danning, Euro-trash regular Franco Ressell and a transvestite film star! - betrays a conservative distrust of the art scene, it is counterbalanced by a post-Sixties paranoid idea of corrupt, middle-aged swingers exploiting free-spirited youth. In particular former Bond villain from Thunderball (1965) Adolfo Celi essays one of the creepiest sexual predators in Euro-horror cinema, all the more unsettling for his hideous patterned shirts.
In their rush to condemn giallo horror-thrillers for their lurid sex and violence people tend to overlook the best examples are driven by strong female performances. Here Rosemary Dexter delivers one of the most intelligent and sensitive in the genre. Poor Julie endures a lot of physical and psychological abuse throughout the story but proves a smart, resilient, and intuitive heroine. That is largely because Dexter allows the viewer to watch her think on screen so that the twist in the tail hurts like a punch in the gut. An accomplished, beautiful but sadly undervalued actress, Rosemary Dexter was Italian born of Pakistani origin. Her best known role internationally remains her brief appearance in flashback in Sergio Leone's spaghetti western classic For a Few Dollars More (1965) though she also appeared in star-studded papal drama The Shoes and the Fisherman (1968). She played Juliet in Riccardo Freda's version of Romeo and Juliet (1964) to great acclaim and graced the LSD-themed giallo The Sex of Angels (1968) but retired from acting in the mid-Seventies. Sadly she died in 2010 after a long illness.